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CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY (director: Tim Burton; screenwriters: John August/from the book by Roald Dahl; cinematographer: Philippe Rousselot; editor: Chris Lebenzon; music: Danny Elfman; cast: Johnny Depp (Willy Wonka), Freddie Highmore (Charlie Bucket), David Kelly (Grandpa Joe), Helena Bonham Carter (Mother Bucket), Noah Taylor (Father Bucket), Missi Pyle (Mrs. Beauregarde), James Fox (Mr. Salt), Deep Roy (Oompa-Loompas), Christopher Lee (Dr. Wonka), AnnaSophia Robb, (Violet Beauregarde), Jordan Fry (Mike Teavee), Philip Wiegratz (Augustus Gloop), Julia Winter (Veruca Salt); Runtime: 115; MPAA Rating: PG; producers: Brad Grey/Richard D. Zanuck; Warner Brothers; 2005)
“Plays to a child’s imagination and curiosity.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Tim Burton’s (“Edward Scissorhands”/”Big Fish”/”Sleepy Hollow”) lavish looking Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a sure-fire treat for the eyes, and somewhat less so for the taste buds. This film version of Britain’s Roald Dahl’s 1964 best-selling children’s book is mostly a faithful adaptation (except for a loaded on psychological back story about Wonka told through flashback about his unhappy childhood). It’s in sync spiritually with the author. What it doesn’t convey is the full impact of Dahl’s cruelly perverse sense of humor and his movingly compassionate look at poverty’s ill-effects on the children who grow up hungry–which he views in much the same way as does Charles Dickens. Also, Burton’s version doesn’t melt in your mouth that same delightful trippy way the 1971 Willy Wonka characterization by Gene Wilder did (though overall Burton’s film is the better version), who plays the eccentric owner of a chocolate factory taking some lucky children on a psychedelic tour of his innovative mysterious plant.

It’s a comedy of manners (albeit, children’s manners and those of their indulgent parents), that takes its cue from the energetic madcap performance of Johnny Depp’s parent-hating Willy Wonka, whose domineering dentist father (Christopher Lee) refused him sweets and forced him to wear an inhibiting orthodontic brace around his head. This drove Willy to leave home at an early age, which left him stuck with lasting dysfunctional problems over such bad childhood experiences and is the reason he’s still so obsessed over sweets. Willy went on to become the successful owner of a chocolate factory and in his heyday built the biggest chocolate factory in the world, which looks eerie in its austere facade of greyness like something dehumanizing William Blake would pen about the Industrial Revolution and its cold structures. Willy’s irresistibly charming (suggesting a Michael Jackson intonation, look and feel but without the little boy in the bed baggage), but he’s also reclusive and has a cruelly twisted personality. As a lucrative business promotion which allows his sales to enormously climb, he hides five Golden Tickets inside his regular Wonka chocolate bars that are shipped all over the world and the lucky children who find them are invited with one chaperone to take a one-day guided tour by the owner of his mysterious factory. Besides eating all the chocolate you can, there’s a special surprise awaiting the winner at the end of the day.

The film’s hero is Charlie Bucket (Freddie Highmore). He’s a well-behaved school-aged lad who lives in poverty with his parents (Helena Bonham Carter and Noah Taylor) and four grandparents (David Kelly, Eileen Essell, David Morris, Liz Smith) in a ramshackle house just outside of the town where Wonka’s factory is located. The family subsists on cabbage soup and good cheer in their miserable surroundings, as the kid’s father works the assembly-line in a toothpaste factory until laid off because of automation.

Charlie is enthused about the lottery but since he’s a “have-not” his kindly grandfather Joe (David Kelly), who used to work in the Wonka factory until everyone got layed off, cautions him not to be too optimistic about finding the ticket. The nice kid rarely has the dough to buy a candy bar, while the “haves” have the decided advantage that they can buy as many chocolates as pleases them. The search for Wonka bars becomes an international craze and as Charlie’s other grandfather says, the rich kids will get the tickets and it seems he’s right. The gluttonous German kid Augustus Gloop, the spoiled English girl Veruca Salt, the obsessively competitive gum-chewing Atlanta girl Violet Beauregarde, and the obnoxious know-it-all game player of violent videos named Mike Teavee are the first four to win and they are all from privileged homes and are all repulsive. Charlie becomes the fifth and last Golden Ticket winner when he finds a dollar bill in the snow and uses the money to buy a Wonka bar at the corner candy store.

Willy, appearing in his Prince Valiant haircut and sporting perfectly straight teeth, opens the London factory gates to the public for the first time in 15 years, after he was forced to close the plant because corporate spies stole all his recipes. Willy then travels to an undiscovered part of the world (in the book it was Africa, here it appears to be Asia) where he made a deal with the tribal chief to bring back a slave labor force of Asian-looking pygmies — the Oompa-Loompas — to dwell and work in the factory. So in secret, no longer trusting in society, the anti-social Willy restarted his plant and became even more successful than before. The children and their chaperones are led by Willy on the excursion into the factory’s interior (which becomes a trip into the loopy imaginative mind-set of the director and the author). They view an assortment of sugary treats and amusing chorus line dance numbers performed by the Oompa-Loompas (all of them played by Deep Roy), and are taken on an imaginative look at such spectacles as the chocolate room with its waterfall and edible organic matter, a television laboratory that transfers real chocolates into the home, and a colorful room where real squirrels are trained to shell only good walnuts. The narrative veers from wondrous childlike delights at seeing such fantastic set pieces and freak show spectaculars to a sinister menacing feel as the four nasty kids get their comeuppances as they fall prey to their character flaws and are punished in a series of devilish yet comic calamities, such as the bratty demanding Veruka being attacked by hordes of squirrels and pushed down a chute to the incinerator after she tries to possess a squirrel she’s told is not for sale. The only one left standing is the decent regular kid Charlie. To his surprise, he learns that he’s inherited the chocolate factory as Willy wasn’t looking for a genius replacement only a kid who wasn’t rotten.

Uneven, flawed, and vacuous, but nevertheless Burton and writer John August have found a kindred spirit in Dahl to express their own fantasies. This enables the filmmaker to deliver a pleasurable grand movie that plays to a child’s imagination and curiosity while it manages to bring back fond childhood memories. Not a perfect Willy Wonka movie, but a cool, unnerving and sumptuous one.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”